Kentucky Review / Vanderbilt Preview

Florida’s winning streak reached 31 against Kentucky with another ugly performance that had a beautiful ending.  After being outplayed for most of the first 3 quarters, the Gators dominated the 4th quarter to overcome a 13-point deficit and steal a SEC road win.

After watching Feleipe Franks stumble through another rough outing, Coach Mac inserted Luke Del Rio late in the 3rd quarter to try and spark the offense.  It turned out to be the correct call, as the offense came to life and moved the ball effectively and scored 2 touchdowns.  Malik Davis had the hot hand at RB, and surprisingly led the way with 21 carries for 93 yards to help establish a consistent running threat.  Kedarious Toney again showed why he is already one of the best freshmen in the SEC with a 36-yard TD run out of the wildcat formation and a long pass to Tyrie Cleveland that set up the first TD of the 4th quarter.  Cleveland scored a TD of his own in the 2nd quarter on a 4th down play known as “jazz hands”, where the staff had noticed that Kentucky sometimes was slow to cover an outside receiver out of a bunch formation.  Fortunately Franks saw the opening and delivered the ball to Cleveland.  Unbelievably, the same play worked to perfection late in the game for the winning score on a pass from LDR to Freddie Swain.  The O-Line did a decent job of run blocking even with no real threat from Franks and the passing game.  However, you could immediately see a huge improvement in both run and pass blocking when LDR entered the game.  He knows the playbook better than any of the QBs, and also knows how to call blocking scheme changes that help the O-Line.  The pocket was basically clean the last 20 minutes of the game.

The playcalling of Doug Nussmeier remains numbingly poor and predictable.  The swing passes and pitches to the short side of the field.  Only one deep throw.  No slant routes.  Passes within 2 yards (or behind) the LOS when longer yardage is needed..  Any time there was a pass on first down, you could count on a run on 2nd down and a pass on third down.  The same crap for 3 seasons, and the opposing coaches actually get paid to see the same things.  Nuss must go.

Shockingly, Deandre Goolsby made 2 clutch catches to extend drives in the second half, the first real contribution out of the TE position all season.  Greg Nord must go.

The punt coverage was abysmal – no lane integrity, poor angles.  Greg Nord must go.

The WRs still cannot get open consistently, displaying poor technique getting off the LOS and sloppy route-running.  Kerry Dixon must go.

Overreaction?  Not after 2+ years of this mess.

The Gator defense did not help the cause by allowing the Mildcats to control the ball and clock for almost 3 quarters.  The same problems have not been corrected yet – poor run game fits by the LBs, poor coverage by the safeties, no one setting the edge on outside runs, and incredibly bad tackling.  The loss of LB Vosean Joseph for a targeting call in the first half hurt the defense, already missing LB Kylan Johnson due to injury.  Nick Washington looked bad in coverage, getting beaten for Kentucky’s first TD.  The D-Line struggled in the first half against the run, but settled down in the second half and finally found it’s footing.  The pass rush was terrific all night, ending a handful of Mildcat drives that could have put the game away before the QB change for Florida.  Finally, the CB play from the freshmen continues to excel – they have helped save the team from what could be an 0-3 start.

Vanderbilt comes to the Swamp off of a crushing 59-0 loss to Alabama at home.  After getting off to a 3-0 start and talking themselves up, they were reminded of their place.  It will be interesting to see how they react to the loss – come out deflated, or use the embarrassment as motivation.  At this point it may not matter to the Gators, as they have so many issues of their own that no opponent can be overlooked.

The Commodore’s quick start to the season was led by their defense, as their offense has looked even worse that Florida’s.  Head Coach Derek Mason has done a very good job of coordinating the defense since he fired his defensive coordinator in the middle of the 2016 season (see Coach Mac – it can be done).  The Vandy front seven had been solid against the run, led by a very good LB corps.  However, they were literally run over last week by Alabama, so perhaps the Florida coaching staff can find some things in the film to exploit.  Their secondary is suspect, but who knows if the Gators can take advantage of it until it’s proven?  If LDR is named the starter this week (and I don’t see any reason not to), that should lend itself to a more varied passing scheme and (hopefully) more consistent success and balance.  The WRs should be able to get open more often.  The RB rotation of Davis, Lemical Perine, and Mark Thompson has been effective the last 2 weeks, and will be relied upon again.  The O-Line will need to continue to mesh, and should have improved communication with LDR at QB.  Finally, Toney should continue to terrorize defenses with his speed and playmaking ability.

Randy Shannon and the entire defensive staff have so much to work on, it’s hard to decide where to start.  This is perhaps the worst tackling team I’ve seen since the 1970s.  The LB play has been especially poor, hampered by both injuries and suspensions, with no relief in sight.  The DEs are doing a great job rushing the QB, but still are allowing way to many easy runs to the outside on sweeps and on not maintaining lane integrity on draw plays.  The safeties have really struggled – Chauncey Gardner while (not) tackling, and Washington in coverage.  I expect to see more of Shawn Davis and Brad Stewart this week – might as well throw Stewart in like the freshmen playing well at CB – he has the raw ability to be very good.  Perhaps it’s time to consider a 5 man front to shore up the edges, and let the chips fall where they may for the LBs.  The return of Joseph from his targeting ejection last week will be a huge boost.  A 5-2-4 alignment may be just what’s needed to get the best 11 defensive players on the field for now.

It hasn’t been pretty, but the Gators don’t need to make any apologies for being 2-0 in SEC play.  The important things are continuing to correct mistakes, developing the young players as the team is essentially on probation with 9 suspended players and some injured ones, and focusing only on the next  game.  It’s the start of a critical 3-game home stand that could set Florida up for another run to Atlanta, or expose the team’s flaws and really ramp up the “noise in the system”.  The pressure continues unabated for Coach Mac to improve the offense, while Shannon and the defensive staff have to find ways to mask the poor LB play.  For now, it’s hard to imagine a performance by this team that leads to a comfortable win until it happens.

Finally, now that felony charges have been filed for the “Suspended 9”, I’m hearing some disturbing things about what’s happening both inside and outside of the locker room.  Coach Mac is going to need to change his “aw shucks” persona and get tough publicly, and he also needs to not let friendships with coaches preclude improvement.

Never a dull moment for Gator Nation.

Prediction:  Florida 20      Vanderbilt 17

 

 

 

 

Tennessee Review / Kentucky Preview

“Train Right Open, Big Ben In”

That’s the play call that (again) will be etched into Florida Football history.  Unbelievable – the same play that won the game against Tennessee in 2015 came up aces again on Saturday, with the 63-yard throw from Feleipe Franks to Tyrie Cleveland putting the dagger into the Vol’s hearts – again.  The 4th quarter turned what had been a mundane, low-scoring game into a highlight reel.

While all of the headlines will be about the last-play TD, it was the Gator defense that set the stage by holding the Vols to 3 points until the offense finally found some footing late.  The defense came up with many stops in it’s own territory throughout the game, forcing Tennessee to try long FGs (3 of which missed).  Duke Dawson came up with a huge pick at the Gator 1-yard line late in the third quarter, and CJ Henderson continues to shine as a true freshman with another pick six early in the 4th quarter to give Florida a 10 point cushion.  The one area of major concern is the poor defense of the linebackers, both against the run and pass.  There were again a host of missed tackles against the Vol RBs, and this group still hasn’t defended screen passes properly and continues to vacate the middle in pass coverage.  These were the only reasons Tennessee’s offense finally made it a close game, scoring way too quickly and easily in the 4th quarter.  Some of that might be attributed to getting worn down by having to play so many snaps due to the offensive struggles, but there were too many poor angles taken and a lack of recognition of pass-play development.  Coaches Shannon and Skipper have to get this corrected, even if it means moving to more 4-2-5 sets and getting another DB into coverage.

The offense again had it’s struggles, but did show signs of life in the running game.  Each of Lemical Perine, Mark Thompson, and Malik Davis had their moments, especially the long run by Davis that almost became a back-breaking TD to give the Gators a 17 point lead and effectively end the game.  It was good to see a few throws on slants to the WRs, which helped keep the LBs honest.  Kedarious Toney was finally unleashed, and showed off some big-time moves and speed.  His athletic ability will help the other WRs get more single coverage, and open up the entire field for Franks.  The route-running and lack of separation by the WRs remains a concern, and Coach Dixon isn’t impressing anyone right now with the lack of development of this group.  Every offensive unit still lacks consistency, and has room to improve.  Finally, moving Doug Nussmeier to the booth may have helped a little, but the lack of aggressiveness and assertiveness of his playcalling still is handcuffing the offense and in my opinion prevents the players from playing fast and loose as they should.  The Gators still aren’t taking full advantage of the speed of their skill players to threaten defenses all over the field.

It sounds like Volsheimers is setting in early in Knoxville, as somehow their narrative is that the better team lost.

Well, when you……

didn’t lead the entire game

have Florida lose a 73 yard touchdown run when the ball was stripped from behind at the one

had the ball first and goal at the one and didn’t score

missed 3 FGs

played a Florida offense with only 4 skill position players having more than 14 career games of experience

played against a Gator defense that at some times in the 4th quarter had 7 freshmen playing

……and don’t win, you didn’t deserve to win, and likely should have never been that close.

It’s on to the Bluegrass State to face a Kentucky team that is talking proud right now about how they have finally “arrived” in the SEC East this season.  This after coming off wins such as struggling on the road to beat a bad Southern Mississippi team, an ugly home win over Eastern Kentucky, and winning at South Carolina against an overrated Lamecock team.  Any time you get a road win in the SEC that is to be commended, but I’m not buying into the media hype that this is the year the Wildcats end their 30-game losing streak to the Gators just yet.  Head Coach Mike Stoops has his team playing solid fundamental football and limiting mistakes, but Florida is a large step up in talent and won’t be as accommodating.

Florida’s offense showed some glimpses of improvement and big-play capability against Tennessee, and must continue to attack more often and get the ball into the hands of Toney and Davis.  Their ability to stretch the field and spread out the defense opens up the rest of the offense, and allows Franks to become more comfortable in the passing game.  The Gator running game showed improvement last week and should have more success against a Kentucky D-Line they physically outmatch.  The rotation of Perine, Thompson, and Davis is improving, and allows each guy to stay fresh into the second half.  Franks hopefully will improve and quicken his decision-making, as he left a lot of yards on the field against Tennessee both as a passer and runner.  Josh Hammond seems to be the #2 WR behind Cleveland now, and he plus Toney have to help make the defense play more honest in coverage.  Perhaps Dre Massey will finally be removed from the side of milk cartons and get some touches.  The O-Line improved a little, but at this point I’m not expecting more than a middle of the pack performance this season.  This is where the playcalling has to help the entire offense – Coach Mac needs to continue to ensure the keys players are getting the ball and somehow quicken the pace of play.  So far the TE position has contributed nothing – a huge disappointment.  Here’s hoping Kemore Gamble gets healthy soon and can get on the field.

The old adage that defense travels is the mantra for this week.  The Gator defense has to shake off a bad 4th quarter of minor injuries and poor tackling against Tennessee and get back to solid fundamentals.  Kentucky simply doesn’t have the playmakers or firepower that the Vols have on offense, and the Gators should be able to control the action at the LOS and force QB Stephen Johnson into situations he is not comfortable in.  Johnson is more of a threat as a runner than as a passer and is the second leading rusher behind Benny Snell, so the DEs must stay in their rush lanes and contain him in the pocket.  Snell is the Wildcat workhorse – he’s not especially fast or elusive, but plays a physical game and tries to wear down opponents.  C.J. Conrad is the main receiving target – he doesn’t have many catches, but has a large average per catch, making big plays after defenses bunch up to stop the running game.  The Gator secondary has enough talent and playmakers to control the Wildcat WRs as long as they maintain discipline and don’t get caught looking into the backfield and allowing receivers to get behind them.  The LB corps misses Kylan Johnson and lacks quality depth right now, but simply has to play better and smarter – starting with containing the QB on scramble plays this week.

Florida’s special teams should have a huge advantage in this game.  Anything they can do to help field position and assist in generating points is always magnified on the road.

Someday Kentucky will end their losing streak to Florida, which now stands at 30.  They are at home, and will have an excited crowd behind them for a night game.  However, even with an offense and QB that are works in progress, the Gators have a better defense and a decided edge on special teams.  The coaching staff should be able to use the tape from the Tennessee game to keep the players focused on improving, and let all the talk coming out of the Kentucky camp provide motivation to keep the streak alive.

Prediction:  Florida 27      Kentucky 17

 

 

 

 

Tennessee Preview

Another season, another weather-impacted game.  Hurricane Irma caused the cancellation of Florida’s game against Northern Colorado, and now the Gators have lost a much-needed week of game prep and live action to work out the myriad problems on offense before the SEC opener against Tennessee.  Between this and the ongoing suspensions of 9 players for their role in the credit scam, Coach Mac can’t seem to catch a break.  From what I’m hearing, the investigation of those players is a criminal one, and they may not be back for weeks.  A literal and figurative black cloud still follows the Florida program.

The spotlight continues to remain on the Gator offense.  Assuming Antonio Callaway and Jordan Scarlett are still unavailable due to suspension, Coach Mac has to make sure to spread the ball around to the rest of the playmakers.  If that means taking over play calling duties from Doug Nussmeier, then by all means do it.  Nuss isn’t getting it done, and will move upstairs to the coaches box……perhaps the first step in taking him completely out of the loop.  I really don’t think the offense needs to resort to anything special as far as the scheme goes – just play physical and fast.  The O-Line did not play well in the opener, and still has something to prove.  Establishing an effective running game will set everything else up for Franks and the WRs.  Coach Davis – do something to improve the interior OL play, especially at guard. Start Brett Heggie at a minimum, as Tyler Jordan and Fred Johnson didn’t get it done in game 1.  For whomever is calling the plays – please use the RBs in the passing game (swing passes/screens) to take pressure off of both Franks and the OL; throw some passes between the hashmarks – it’s allowed; and get the ball into the hands of Kedarious Toney and Dre Massey in space to make plays. Tennessee’s defense is built on funneling plays to their LBs, each of whom is averaging over 10 tackles per game.  If Florida can take advantage of it’s speed on the perimeter and the O-Line can get to the second level, the offense will have finally have success.

The Gator defense will be healthy, and has to take it to the Volunteer offense from the start.  Blitzes, stunts, new looks – Coach Shannon has to show more aggressiveness in his schemes and not try to protect the young LBs and DBs.  The Florida D-Line should be able to control the LOS – it’s up to the back seven to make plays.  Coach Shannon and Coach Rumph – get on the asses of the DEs and teach them to play their assignments and rush lanes…..no more conversions of 3rd-and-10+ yards with freakin’ draw plays.  Tennessee has mostly new faces on offense.  QB in Quinten Dormady has looked OK so far, but has not faced a good defense yet and is still an unknown quantity.  RB John Kelly does look like a good player, and is the workhorse.  WR Marquez Callaway is a big play threat both as a receiver and on jet sweeps.  The Gator defense will focus on those three and force others to emerge.  I’m excited about Marco Wilson and CJ Henderson – they are going to be excellent CBs. I’m hoping to see Brad Stewart in an expanded role at safety and Shawn Davis develop – if Chauncey Gardner and/or Nick Washington aren’t on the field, these guys have to step up.  Get after the Tennessee offense – apply pressure, hit some people, and challenge them to make plays.

There is massive pressure on the entire staff and team to win this week.  The bad taste of the Michigan performance hasn’t been washed away, and an 0-2 start would cripple any expectations for this season as well as stop the great recruiting momentum gained over the summer.  No way around it – losing the experience of playing the N. Colorado game hurts the development of Franks and took away the chance to get a lot of young players more experience.  Coach Mac is giving indications that things will change for the offense, which is welcome.  I’m hoping the team doesn’t press too much and make dumb mistakes that prove costly.  The Gators match up as a better team on paper, but must prove it on the field – here’s hoping some much-needed relief comes for Gator Nation.

Prediction:  Florida 27      Tennessee 20

Irma 1          Florida 0

Michigan Review/Northern Colorado Preview

The Gators fell flat in Dallas, getting run off the field with a terrible second half performance and getting embarrassed by Michigan.  After an entire offseason to get the offense right and to prepare, the offensive coaching staff was indeed offensive, earning an ‘F’ grade for a dismal game plan that dredged up more of the same garbage that Gator fans have had to witness for most of the last seven seasons.  The suspensions of Callaway and Scarlett are no excuse, as Doug Nussmeier put another nail in his coffin by handcuffing Franks and the skill players with a painfully conservative game plan.  No throws between the hashmarks, no screens, no throws to the RBs to slow a constant Wolverine pass rush, no getting the ball in the hands of playmakers like Dre Massey and Kedarious Toney, no consistent runs to the outside (one of the few things that had success), no……anything.  The O-Line was over matched physically, and became a sieve in the second half as Michigan blitzed unrelentingly and the interior of the O-Line failed to match up.  The poor playcalling did not help them or the new QBs at all.

Other than a few nice deep throws by Feleipe Franks, there was no running game, no consistency, and certainly no aggressive calls in those precious few opportunities in Michigan territory.  Even the one run by Mark Thompson that broke for a TD and would have given the Gators a 24-13 lead was called back for a phantom holding penalty.  I understand why Mac pulled Franks for Malik Zaire after a few shaky series and a fumble, but Zaire did not provide a spark, and by then Michigan was teeing off on the passing game and he never had a chance.  I am surprised that Franks wasn’t allowed to go back in after a few series to get more experience and try to generate something.  One of the few players who showed out was WR Tyrie Cleveland, who played hard throughout and came up with some tough catches in traffic.  But even he wasn’t completely without fault, as his fumble on a kickoff return led to a quick Wolverine FG to stretch their second half lead.  Just a complete disaster that has to shake the confidence of a young offense and has the fan base grumbling (again).  It’s time for Coach Mac to cut bait and take over playcalling immediately, or else he could derail the season by October and start dragging himself down with his loyalty to Nuss, who needs to be let go.

The Gator defense showed flashes of being a solid unit, but also showed expected problems in the secondary, especially at safety.  The loss of Marcell Harris was felt as two blown coverages led to Michigan’s first and last offensive TDs – the first right after Chauncey Gardner had to leave the field for a few series after an injury.  Duke Dawson was solid at CB, tying the game with a pick six.  True freshmen CBs Marco Wilson and CJ Henderson played very well, with Henderson even giving the Gators the lead with a pick six of his own.  There will be some growing pains for the secondary as the season progresses, but there’s hope that by midseason it’s a quality group overall, with a bright future beyond 2017.  The D-Line and LBs had some moments, but also some critical breakdowns.  The DEs consistently came out of their rush lanes and did not set the edge, allowing some crippling draw plays and rushes bounced to the outside to extend scoring drives.  The only DE that doesn’t fall into that category is Jordan Sherit, who actually made some plays and had a sack.  The LBs missed a lot of tackles by taking some poor angles, and also were exposed in the passing game, as the Michigan TEs consistently beat them with crossing routes.  The tackling exception was David Reese who led the team with 11.

Overall, the defense played well enough to win, especially rising to the occasion in the second half and holding Michigan to 2 FGs after critical fumbles by Franks and Cleveland deep inside Gator territory.  They eventually cracked just enough as the offense continually floundered……a theme repeated all too often the past 3 seasons.  There’s plenty to work on and to improve.  Randy Shannon has to show more looks on the defensive front, and also get the front seven to play with more discipline.

Special teams were solid, even with one missed FG by Eddy Pineiro.  Johnny Townsend was terrific as usual in the punting game, continually flipping the field.

How deflating – Gator Nation turned out in force and had the energy and attendance advantage – only to witness a soul-crushing coaching performance.

Next up is the home opener against Northern Colorado.  There’s a lot for the staff and players to work on in practice, and hopefully they can shake off the disappointment of last week and show improvement, especially the offense.  Coach Mac will start Franks again as he should, but has to take over the play calling and let the skill players play fast, spread the ball around, and actually have some fun.  This week should be a good opportunity to play a lot of guys, while giving Franks the chance to develop some confidence.  The defense should have little trouble controlling the game.  There’s no time to relax, as a big game against Tennessee looms next week, with a tough run of games all the way to the off week before Georgia.  Unfortunately, other than James Robinson, there’s no official word on which of the ten players suspended last week will be allowed to play, so their stupidity affects the cohesion of the rest of the team.  Hopefully there are no serious injuries before the SEC season begins.

The fans at this point are likely not to be too excited even if the offense improves and the Gators win big, waiting to see good play against a legitimate opponent.  Another ugly performance from the offense and things could head downhill really fast, including the defense turning on the offense in the locker room.  A rather inauspicious start to 2017.

Prediction:  Florida 41      UNC 13

 

Michigan Preview

The 2017 season kicks off with a monster game against Michigan at AT&T Stadium in Arlington, home of the Dallas Cowboys.  This is part of national television doubleheader, with a lot of media attention and fans across the country tuning in to watch 2 big-time programs.  There are a lot more questions than answers going into the start of the season.  Has Coach McElwain finally constructed a competent offense?  Does Florida have a QB?  Is Defensive Coordinator Randy Shannon re-loading the defense, or is it a re-build?  Can Florida set aside the off-season distraction of suspensions to 7 players and play a focused, hard-fought game?  We’re about to find out.

On offense, Coach Mac has been coy with the media about who will start at QB, but I am going with my season preview pick of Feleipe Franks as the guy who gets first crack at it.  To help move the ball against a tough D-Line and keep Franks upright, I believe Coach Mac and Offensive Coordinator Doug Nussmeier will have an assortment of quick passes, roll-outs, motion, counter plays, and misdirection to keep the QB clean while (hopefully) wearing down the Wolverine defense.  I do expect to see at least 2 guys taking some snaps, though, as Mac has to develop Malik Zaire in this offense (he is a real threat as a runner), or get Luke Del Rio the opportunity to shake some rust off after missing the last month of 2016 due to various injuries.

The Gator O-Line will have to take charge of the LOS against a strong Michigan front four, and actually score enough points to help a talented but inexperienced defense.  New OL coach Brad Davis has an O-Line that has enough experience, depth, and talent that it should be able to do enough to allow the skill position players their chance to make some big plays and announce themselves to the nation.  Martez Ivey will be playing hurt, but is a potential all-SEC LT.  TJ McCoy has to build on his good play at center after he became the starter the last month of 2016.  Jawaan Taylor will be even better after a fine freshman year at RT.  If the combination of Tyler Jordan, Fred Johnson, and Brett Heggie can hold their own in the interior, this will make the life of whomever is playing QB much easier.

New RB coach Ju’Juan Seider has a deep stable of RBs ready to do their part, if they are given some room.  Jordan Scarlett and Lemical Perine will get most of the carries, and Mark Thompson is a big back that could start for many teams.  True freshman Malik Davis may get some work if Thompson is suspended for the  game.  All of them are good receivers as well, and can really help take some pressure off of the QB with some safe throws while getting out into space to make plays.

The WRs must take up the slack for the loss of Antonio Callaway to suspension.  It’s time for coach Kerry Dixon to get consistent performance out of this group.  Tyrie Cleveland and Josh Hammond have their turn to show out, while Dre Massey, Brandon Powell, and freshman Kedarious Toney could do some serious damage from the slot, as all are big play threats.  Toney will also get a few snaps in the wildcat formation in order to keep Michigan’s defense honest while giving him additional touches where he could make something happen.  Michigan’s secondary is completely new, so the Gator WRs should have a decided advantage and be able to generate some big plays.

Michigan is replacing 7 defensive starters with a lot of young talent, but it is inexperienced, and it’s doubtful they have reliable depth to count on at the start of a season.  Their D-Line has real quality players in Rashan Gary, Maurice Hurst, and Bryan Mone.  This is the strength of their defense, and will be a huge challenge for Florida’s O-Line.  At LB they have only one returning starter in Mike McCray, but he is a potential all-conference player.  Michigan likes to employ a big safety on a majority of snaps that can drop down into the box, but they no longer have the luxury of All-American Jabrill Peppers, who is in the NFL.  Their new secondary has very little experience, few tackles, and no interceptions among the group.  A bunch of lightly-used upperclassmen and true freshmen will be thrown in to the fire, and it’s imperative that Mac and Nuss exploit them.

The Gator defense has a lot of unknown talent getting it’s chance to make a name for itself.  Despite the losses of 8 players to the NFL, there is enough talent and depth returning to again be an upper-level SEC defense and hold it’s own against any offense.  The D-Line will need to lead the way, in order to protect a good LB corps that lacks depth and a secondary that has lost impact players and is very young.  The DT rotation of Taven Bryan, Jachai Polite, Khairi Clark, and 3 freshmen have to stand up to a tough Michigan running game.  The Wolverines are replacing 10 offensive starters, and Coach Jim Harbaugh will rely on the run along with multiple TE sets to try and wear down Florida’s front seven.  It will be fun to watch Randy Shannon and DL coach Chris Rumph mix and match a deep rotation to try and gain at least a stalemate at the LOS and be able to turn loose a large group of pass-rushers at DE.  If the Gators can force Michigan to pass, CeCe Jefferson, Jabari Zuniga, and others should be able to make life miserable for QB Wilton Speight, new OTs and an inexperienced WR corps.

Shannon’s defensive schemes usually ask the D-Line to occupy the blockers, allowing the LBs to clean things up.  The starting LB group of David Reese, Kylan Johnson, and Vosean Joseph will be tested by the Wolverine running game, and have to tackle well.  Michigan returns 3 RBs that combined for over 1,500 yards, led by Chris Evans, who has elite size and talent and should get the majority of carries.  Coach Tim Skipper has only Jeremiah Moon and Christian Garcia as experienced backups, and will have to manage this group wisely.

When Michigan does choose to throw they have a young but physically large group or WRs led by Grant Perry and Eddie McDoom, but true freshmen Tarik Black and Donovan Peoples-Jones will play a lot.  They will have a size advantage over CBs Duke Dawson, Chauncey Gardner, Joseph Putu, and a handful of true freshmen led by Marco Wilson.  These guys have to try and alter routes at the LOS and prevent letting the WRs use their size on slant routes.  Nick Washington is the only returning starter at safety, and will be tasked with getting the entire secondary lined up properly and getting the right coverage calls in.  Jaewon Taylor saw increased playing time the last month of 2016, and needs to play well.  Gardner may have to move back and forth from CB to safety during the game.  Freshmen Shawn Davis and Brad Stewart will be pressed into duty and, while being promising prospects, have zero college experience along with being thrown into a high-pressure game against a quality opponent.  Coach Corey Bell is going to have his hands full all season finding the right combinations of players while having to develop the young guys immediately.

One area that Florida should have a sizeable advantage is on Special Teams – especially the kicking game.  K Eddy Pineiro and P Johnny Townsend could be the best kicking duo in the country, and could prove to be a huge edge in the field position battle along with providing relief to both the offense and defense.  Both will have to be sharp from the outset and come through in pressure situations.  There may so little room for error in this game that either one could be the difference.  With Callaway out, Massey or Powell will handle punt returns, while Cleveland and Toney will get their shot at kickoff returns.  Each of these guys has the ability to impact the game with a big return, which would take some pressure off of both the offense and defense.

I can’t overstate how important this game is to both teams to start the season.  There is a lot riding on the outcome for Florida – national respect, conference pride, building confidence in the direction of the program, and a boost in the chances of this year’s team attaining some major goals.  Coach McElwain now has most of the roster filled with his own recruits, and has to try and put together a big season against a very tough schedule.  The entire staff and the players have to be as prepared and as sharp as can be expected right out of the gate, with little room for error.  Having the entire offseason knowing they had Michigan in the opener has hopefully given the team the focus and incentive it needs to win.  If the offense finds it’s footing and actually carries it’s own weight, while the defense plays solid assignment football and limits big plays, I think the Gators have enough of an edge in experience to win the game.

Prediction: Florida 24      Michigan 20

2017 Season Preview

Jim McElwain begins his 3rd season as head coach with the most balanced roster of his tenure. He has finally been able to build depth at all positions, and is not relying solely on heath, transfers, and good luck to survive an entire SEC season at any particular position. New energy has been infused into both coaching and recruiting with the addition of Brad Davis as the OL coach, Ja’Juan Seider as RB coach, and Corey Bell as secondary coach. All 3 have the juice to energize their players and also recruits. The offense, which has struggled mightily at times since 2011, finally has enough legitimate talent and depth to compete against anyone. The defense actually carries more question marks coming into 2017, moreso due to loss of experience than to the talent returning. Randy Shannon moves into the Defensive Coordinator role, and will have to scheme around a lot of young players who will have to contribute from the start. Overall, there is more positive momentum coming into this season than there has been in a long time, and it is welcome.

Offense

It’s time for the offense to carry it’s fair share of the load for the Gators, and to even lead the team. There is quality and depth at all positons, but inexperience at QB could tell the tale of 2017. Coach Mac and Offensive Coordinator Doug Nussmeier are tired of the criticism, and are ready to put a consistent, competent product on the field.

At quarterback, it appears that redshirt freshman Feleipe Franks has taken the lead in fall practice and will begin the season as the starter. He is being thrown into a tough position, as he has no college experience, had a lot of hype coming in as a recruit, and has an impatient Gator Nation ready to see a quality offense. He has all of the physical tools to be very good, but will need to be coached well to overcome the inexperience and take advantage of what he can do well right now. Fortunately he redshirted last season in order to learn the offense.

Luke Del Rio will be vying with Notre Dame transfer Malik Zaire as the backup. Both have starting experience, but come with question marks of their own. LDR has to prove he’s healthy, while Zaire is behind on learning the playbook. LDR knows this offense better than the others, while Zaire is a very good athlete and provides a running dynamic that sets him apart. I would not be surprised to see all three guys get snaps throughout September, both to give the Gators the best chance at winning, but also to give the players the chance to prove who can be most effective in live action.

Coach Seider inherits a talented and deep RB corps from Tim Skipper, who is now coaching the LBs. Jordan Scarlett returns as the leading rusher from 2016, and has established himself as the lead back. Lamical Perine played very well as a true freshman last season, and should receive more snaps this year. Mark Thompson returns with the strongest physical presence, but still has to prove he’s mentally focused every snap and has improved his ball security. True freshman Malik Davis impressed in fall camp, and likely gets some snaps this fall. Each of the returning RBs is also comfortable with catching passes – this could be an important way to take pressure off of whomever is playing QB.

The wide receivers are by far the most talented and deep group under McElwain’s watch. Coach Kerry Dixon will need to scheme around the suspension of Antonio Callaway at least against Michigan, but there are plenty of capable players ready to step in. Tyrie Cleveland showed flashes as a true freshman in 2016, and now must show he is ready for a lead role. The return of Dre Massey from injury gives the Gators a weapon in the slot. Josh Hammond saw limited duty as a true freshman, but has stepped into a starting role with a strong offseason. Brandon Powell provides senior leadership and consistency, while true freshmen Daquon Green and James Robinson have enough raw talent to contribute right away. The x-factor will be freshman Kadarious Toney, a high school QB who enrolled early and immediately made an impact with his running ability. He will be a slot receiver, but will also get snaps in the wildcat formation at QB – he is a dangerous playmaker. There is now enough speed and size in this group to keep defensive secondaries from stacking the line of scrimmage and allowing the running game room to really shine.

The tight end position will again be more of a receiving threat vs. being involved in the running game. C’yontai Lewis and DeAndre Goolsby return as proven threats on seam and wheel routes, which should help keep opponent LBs honest. Both must catch the ball more consistently. True freshman Kemore Gamble has to potential to be a real 3-down player that can stay on the field for any down-and-distance situation. Until any of these three prove they are effective in-line blockers, Coaches Mac and Nuss will continue to flex out the TEs to scheme around their blocking deficiencies. If they can improve in the running game, that will lessen the predictability of the play-calling based on the personnel on the field.

For once, the offensive line isn’t the primary concern. Coach Davis has enough talent and depth to field a solid SEC-level rotation at each position. At center, TJ McCoy was a revelation when finally given the chance to play, and has entrenched himself as the starter. The guard position has been a shaky one the past 2 seasons, but Fred Johnson, Tyler Jordan, and Brett Heggie are a solid group that hopefully stops the inside penetration that has hampered the offense. Antonio Riles returns from missing 2016 due to injury to provide depth. The tackle position is in excellent shape in regards to the starters. Martez Ivey finally gets to play his natural position of left tackle, and could be an all-SEC player this fall. Jawaan Taylor was a true find as a lightly-regarded recruit last year, and excelled as a true freshman at right tackle. Kavaris Harkless, Nick Buchanan, and true freshmen Kadeem Telfort and T.J. Moore will back up both positions. Most of these guys have cross-trained at other positions, so a few injuries shouldn’t derail the overall performance. This is still a young group overall in regards to experience, but a very capable one that could provide the foundation for (finally) an SEC-competent offense.

Defense

The defense had led the Gators since 2011, but will have a lot of new faces and some inexperience to overcome. Florida was hammered with the loss of early NFL entrants DT Caleb Brantley, LB Alex Anzalone, and CBs Jalen Tabor and Quincey Wilson, along with the graduation of LB Jarrad Davis and S Marcus Maye. The overall talent left behind and from the incoming freshman approaches that level, but that loss of experience is difficult to overcome immediately, if at all. Defensive Coordinator Randy Shannon will earn his salary this year in trying to mold together a cohesive unit that limits mistakes and can stand up to a tough schedule. Hopefully the offense finally shares the load again, and can keep these guys fresher and healthier as the season progresses.

Defensive Line coach Chris Rumph will have a lot of talent to manage. He has plenty of depth this fall, but it is young and needs to be developed quickly. The defensive line loses Joey Ivie as well as Brantley at tackle, and it will be a rotation of upperclassmen Taven Bryan, Jachai Polite, Khairi Clark, and freshmen Kyree Campbell, Tedarrell Slaton, and Elijah Conliffe holding down the fort. Shannon’s schemes usually doesn’t require the DTs to be the playmakers – instead asking them to hold the point of attack and allowing the LBs to clean up. The freshmen will get a lot of snaps by necessity, and at least have the size to hold up against physical SEC O-Lines. The DE rotation could be one of the best in the country. CeCe Jefferson, Jabari Zuniga, Jordan Sherit, Keivonnis Davis, and Antonneus Clayton all have pass-rushing ability, and freshman Zach Carter will play as well (perhaps sliding down to tackle if necessary). Jefferson and Zuniga especially have flashed elite pass-rushing skills. There is enough depth that a few injuries shouldn’t significantly affect the performance of this group.

Tim Skipper moves from coaching the RBs to the LBs, but has coached that position at previous stops. He has a strong nucleus returning that was forced to learn and grow out of necessity last season due to injuries to Davis and Anzalone, but has little depth and experience behind the starters. He will have to manage this group carefully and hope they stay healthy. Sophomores Vosean Joseph, Kylan Johnson, and David Reese will start, with Jeremiah Moon and Christian Garcia the only backups with experience. True freshmen Ventrell Miller, James Houston, and Nick Smith all have promise, but will have to be thrown to the SEC wolves this year to try and keep the starters fresh while not seeing a major dropoff in production. It will be interesting to see how often Shannon chooses to run a 4-2-5 scheme based on the performance of the D-Line; this could help keep the LB corps healthy throughout the season. Shannon is one of the best LB coaches in the country, and will be a huge help to this group.

After more than a decade of skill, depth, and playmaking ability exhibited by the secondary, 2017 will be a transition year for DBU. Coach Bell has perhaps the most difficult coaching assignment of the staff this fall, and will have to find a way to manage the little experience he has returning, while integrating many talented freshmen into the rotation at both cornerback and safety. Going into fall practice it looks like Duke Dawson will move from the nickel position to CB, with Chauncey Gardner moving from safety to the other CB slot. JUCO transfer Joseph Putu, and freshmen CJ Henderson, Marco Wilson, and C.J. McWilliams will all be in the rotation, with Wilson having locked up the nickel position. The safety position is a mixed bag as well. The offseason loss to injury of Marcell Harris is a huge blow. Nick Washington is the only upperclassman, and will be charged with getting the others lined up correctly pre-snap and providing leadership. Jaewon Taylor received more playing time as a freshman the last month of 2016 and is slotted in Harris’ position. True freshmen Brad Stewart, Brian Edwards, and Shawn Davis, and redshirt freshman Quincy Lenton will all play. Davis has moved ahead of the others for now, with Lenton battling foot injuries. Gardner may be forced to move back to safety if injuries or lack of production occur, or (better yet), the young guys develop rapidly at CB. Stewart comes in with a lot of hype, and already has looked the part in fall practice. He is athletic enough where he could be asked to also play some at CB if necessary. There is a scary lack of experience – if either Dawson or Gardner are injured, it could be a long season.

Special Teams

This is one of the best units in the country, featuring perhaps the best PK/punter combo in the nation in Eddy Pineiro and Johnny Townsend. Both are strong All-SEC and All-American candidates.

Pineiro was a revelation in 2016, especially after the disastrous previous season with Austin Hardin. Already an internet sensation, he showed it on the actual field of play. He became an immediate weapon on kickoffs, either generating touchbacks or pinning opponents inside the 25 with his high kicks. Where he really impacted the season was with his FG kicking, where he became an accurate, long-distance weapon. This provided Coaches Mac and Nuss a lot of leeway in playcalling once the offense had crossed midfield. He is good enough to actually consider leaving early after 2017 for the NFL if he repeats his success.

Townsend again was one of the best punters in the country in terms of distance and hang time, while also showing a knack for placing kicks inside the opponent’s 20 yard line. He is vitally important in the field position game, in which those hidden yards are so valuable, especially against tougher opponents. The punt coverage team benefitted from his performance, finishing as one of the best statistically in the nation.

Schedule and Outlook

Florida has one of toughest schedules in the country for 2017. The home schedule is perhaps one of the most loaded – ever, with 4 preseason ranked teams coming into the Swamp. In addition, the Cocktail Party in Jacksonville could be a showdown for the SEC East, while conference road games at Kentucky and South Carolina will pit the Gators against very motivated opponents with their own reasons for wanting to win that game – badly. Navigating this schedule successfully will be a huge undertaking for the entire coaching staff and the players. This season will test the patience of the staff and the depth of the roster they have developed.

vs. Michigan – Win
No easing their way into things. The opener at AT&T Stadium in Dallas on national television is a massive game that can set the tone for a successful season or shake the confidence of the entire team. I’m going to lean on the side of an inspired effort that benefits from an entire fall camp devoted to the game plan. Feleipe Franks has to perform well and move the offense, or this could be another ugly loss to the Wolverines. Fortunately, Michigan is replacing 18 starters, and even with a lot of returning talent, they are very young and inexperienced at almost every position. I believe that’s enough to give the edge to Florida.

Northern Colorado – Win
No matter the result against Michigan, this will likely be a sloppy performance against an outmatched opponent in a sandwich game. Stay healthy, and hopefully get a lot of players some snaps. This should allow the staff to peek ahead to the following game.

Tennessee – Win
Payback time for the Gators. The Volunteers finally ended an 11-game losing streak in the series last year, but were gutted by graduation and will be facing a very motivated Florida team. This one could stay close into the second half as Franks (or whoever the QB may be) acclimates to the starting role. As long as the Gators avoid turnovers and any defensive meltdowns, they should return to their winning ways against the Inbreds.

@Kentucky – Win
The first SEC road trip comes against a team that Florida has defeated 30 straight times. The Wildcats are talking proud about how this is the year they take a step up, but have yet to prove it. They will have enough playmakers on offense to test the inexperienced Gator defense, but still do not have the quality depth on defense to give their offense enough opportunities to win. It can be dicey when a young team goes on the road for the first time, especially if they have struggled against either Michigan or Tennessee.

Vanderbilt – Win
Florida has gutted out two close wins under McElwain, but this year’s offense has more quality and playmakers that should allow for a more comfortable game. The Commodores have a good running game, but lack the QB play and defense to stay competitive for 60 minutes. However, historically this has been a sloppy game, and that could continue as Florida may be thinking about their upcoming Homecoming opponent……

LSU (Homecoming) – Win
Wow. This has quickly turned into a nasty game, especially after LSU and their AD, Joe Alleva, called out the Gators for rescheduling last year’s game at the Swamp because of Hurricane Matthew. All Florida did was then allow L$U to whine their way into playing the game at Baton Rouge, then sticking it to the Tigers to win the SEC East and a return trip to Atlanta. The dramatic goal-line stand to win that game will not be forgotten – by either team. There’s bad blood on both sides, and I expect a lot of penalties and mistakes from both teams. The Gator coaching staff has to rein in the emotions and get the team to focus on execution. This is going to be a classic SEC showdown.

Texas A&M – Loss
Huge trap game for Florida, after the emotional game against LSU and before a critical SEC East showdown. The Aggies will have their usual talent on offense and challenge the Gator defense. The Florida offense had better be ready to score some points and try to control the clock. This would be a disappointing loss, but not a shocking one. Kevin Sumlin is coaching for his job in 2017, and will be even more unpredictable and wide-open on offense.

Bye Week

vs. Georgia (Jacksonville) – Loss
This one is tough to predict. Florida has won 21 out of the last 27, and is completely in the heads of the Puppy players. However, Georgia could have a distinct edge at QB, and have a senior-laden defense returning. This one is feeling like the 1997 game, after Steve Spurrier had neutered the Puppies 7 straight times, but came in with a team fighting through a tough schedule and physically beaten up, as well as playing multiple QBs. Given even terms, I give the coaching edge to Coach Mac over Kirby Smart any day, but an off week prior to this game may not be enough.

@Missouri – Win
Trap game between 2 emotional East Division games. The Tigers struggled mightily last year, as their season cratered under the weight of losing defensive talent, playing legitimate SEC East division teams again, and the controversy swirling around their campus and team in regards to myriad poor decisions by the school administration. What a mess, and an embarrassment to the SEC. I wish the SEC had never admitted them and could find a way to kick them out. Missouri will have some threats on offense with a wide-open passing game and talent at RB, but the Gators should have enough talent on defense to slow them down, while the offense should be able to move the ball successfully. This one may simply come down to the mental strength and focus of the Florida players.

@South Carolina – Win
Another chance to kick Won’t Misschump’s ass after he gutted the talent level and depth of Florida’s offense while trashing the Gator brand. He will certainly have his team ready to play to get back at Florida. It remains to be seen if he can put together a competent offense, while he is rebuilding a defense that hasn’t been SEC-level for several years now. This will be another emotional game that the Gator players have to get up for and avoid a letdown. I’m sure Coach Mac has his own motivation to pay back Misschump for the mess he’s had to clean up, and hopefully he can rally the team to close out another brutal SEC season.

Alabama-Birmingham – Win
Normally this game would be a relaxing scrimmage to rest up before the big game the following week, but UAB made some noise last season, including winning at Mississippi State. That should be enough to make the players take notice, and give the coaching staff something to get their attention. Hopefully the staff gets the opportunity in the second half to empty the roster and have some extra preparation time for the final regular season game. Stay healthy – please!

Florida State – Loss
Florida has lost 6 out of 7 to the Criminoles, and Gator Nation is restless. Watching this game has been brutal recently, and it’s time for Florida to get back on even footing. F$U will come into this game with the advantages of stability in the coaching staff and a strong defense. They still have an edge in overall depth and will be coming in off of an ACC schedule that again is not the same gauntlet that is the SEC. The Gators are capable of winning this game, but must be healthy and have an established QB that is also a leader. Being in the Swamp will be a huge help, but the offense has to finally score a touchdown in this game for the first time since 2014, and continue to score.

Overall Record 9-3
SEC Record 6-2

2017 is a huge year for Coach Mac to finally show progress on offense and energize the fan base and recruiting. He has rebuilt the depth chart, balanced the roster, and generated momentum from a big recruiting summer. Once again he has to develop a QB in Feleipe Franks and/or juggle 2-3 guys in order to give the Gators the opportunity to win a return trip to Atlanta. The schedule is daunting and will test the entire staff and roster. If Florida can manage to win 9 games playing a big-time national schedule while exhibiting progress on offense and managing a young defense, that will set up things for a very bright future. However, inconsistent QB play, lack of scoring, and a defense that starts to allow big plays will possibly slow the positive momentum. This is going to be another challenging year for Coach Mac and the Gators, but they finally have the talent and depth to make it a fair fight. This could be an exciting, memorable season……for the right reasons.

It’s that time again……Heeeeeeeeeeeere come the Gators!

Alabama Review

The rollercoaster 2016 regular season ended at it’s lowest, as Florida was run off the field of the Georgia Dome in the second half in an ugly 54-16 loss. After a great start including a touchdown drive to open the game and an immediate 3-and-out by the Gator defense, things quickly spiraled out of control. Two terrible interceptions by Austin Appleby, one of which was returned for a TD, and then a blocked punt returned for a TD reversed the momentum and forced the Gators to play catch up the rest of the afternoon.

On offense, Appleby was in an early holiday season mood where he giveth, and giveth, and giveth away. 26 for 39 and 2 TDs was good against a very tough defense, but the 3 crushing interceptions completely changed the complexion of the game and allowed Alabama to stay in their comfort zone on offense and defense. This was a microcosm of his career at both Purdue and Florida – occasional big plays offset by too many interceptions and inaccuracy. Despite the interceptions, the offensive game plan was a good one. Coaches Mac and Nussmeier devised a passing game that took advantage of soft coverage in the flats and openings over the middle in the intermediate zones that allowed drives to continue. Quick throws were working, but Appleby’s lack of accuracy and one terrible panicked throw over the middle showed again why he wasn’t the starter until LDR was hurt. The performance of the O-Line was a mixed bag – while they couldn’t sustain any running game, the pass-blocking was very good, allowing Appleby more time than expected to keep plays alive and convert some 3rd downs. Antonio Callaway was hot early on the first TD drive, but was slowed down afterward. Brandon Powell did a nice job of working the flats and underneath zones to convert some 3rd downs, and TE Andre Goolsby was rediscovered and made some clutch receptions along with a TD. Against such a strong team, though, there was no room for error, and the lack of a run threat put Florida behind the chains too often and didn’t allow the Gators to play keep-away from the Bama offense and apply even more pressure on Jalen Hurts to make plays.

The Gator defense came out hot with two consecutive 3-and-outs, but the Appleby turnovers plus the blocked punt return for a TD put them on their heels. In addition, falling behind by double digits took the pressure off of freshman QB Hurts, after the Gators had him rattled early. The avalanche of Bama points that followed from the Gator turnovers removed any realistic chance at an upset win. What momentum the Gators had taken back after their 92-yard TD drive at the end of the first half was lost when they failed to punch it in after another excellent drive early in the 3rd quarter. You could see the team’s spirit visibly broken after being stopped and then allowing a 98-yard TD drive which included a 3rd-and-19 conversion. That was the ballgame, and two late TDs by Bama were inconsequential. All of the injury losses were magnified against a powerful Crimson Tide running game.

Unfortunately the 2016 regular season ended in similar fashion to 2015 with 2 bad losses, and now questions abound about Coach Mac’s leadership, the direction of the program, and recruiting being stuck in neutral. Mac needs to make some difficult decisions, including changes in the staff, to spark recruiting and regain interest from some key recruits still on the board.

The bowl game against Iowa in Tampa is very important for Florida. Something positive needs to happen for the program to get the fan base back in the fold and for the last month leading up to National Signing Day. Normally a game of this stature really wouldn’t carry much weight, but these aren’t normal times for Florida. 7 years of bad QB play and ineffective offense have really affected the fan base and eroded the Gator brand. There will be a lot of cries to play one of the redshirted freshmen QBs to get them ready for 2017, but there’s no way you burn a redshirt at this point. Appleby will get the final start to the season with LDR backing him up. I would hope that after the debacle of the Citrus Bowl loss to Michigan after last season, the returning players and the staff have all the motivation they need to prevent a recurrence of that performance.

I’ll be back with the bowl preview late in December. Happy Holidays – it’s still great to be a Florida Gator!

Florida $t. Review / Alabama Preview

In another frustrating and painful road loss, the Gator offense once again failed miserably to do it’s part to win the game. After a great opening drive that featured a quick pace and spreading the ball around the entire field, it was back to the same predictable, ineffective play calling and execution that that has been all too common in 2016. That initial promising drive ended with the very questionable (in my opinion dead wrong) decision to try and score a TD on 4th down instead of taking the points and buoying the confidence of the offense. After that, it was hit or (mostly) miss, with a beaten up O-Line and inaccurate passes killing any legitimate chance to keep the game within reach. Why the offensive scheme didn’t remain the same the entire night is something that Coach Mac needs to address immediately – continued bad offense will be his undoing and he’ll not even make it to his 5th year, and perhaps 4th. Once again the lack of a quality SEC QB was obvious, as just a few accurate deep throws to open WRs completely changes the complexion of the game. Appleby missed Antonio Callaway on a corner route near the goal line after the interception by Chauncey Gardner, and later in the 3rd quarter missed Tyrie Cleveland on a post-corner route for a gain deep into F$U territory. The Criminole defense played to stop the running game and make the Gators prove they could do damage through the air, and that strategy ultimately worked. Martez Ivey was playing hurt from the start, and it showed. David Sharpe again struggled with speed rushing off the edge, while Jawaan Taylor simply wasn’t good enough as a true freshman to control Demarcus Walker. The RBs didn’t help out in pass protection either, consistently missing assignments and making life difficult for Appleby. The O-Line could not consistently provide the same holes for Jordan Scarlett and Lemical Perine that they did against LSU. Finally, the offense was 0-13 on 3rd down – that is embarrassing, and another indictment against Doug Nussmeier.

The Gator defense played valiantly with limited resources and inexperience at key positions at LB and in the secondary, and kept the game within reach until the middle of the 3rd quarter, when they repeatedly allowed 3rd down conversions that eventually wore them down and allowed 2 big plays that lost the game. The long pass and run by Travis Rudolph wasn’t helped by the bad angle Chauncey Gardner took attempting the tackle, and the fullback counter play early in the 4th quarter came against a tired defense that almost always easily makes that play – as they did repeatedly against LSU when rested. All that being said, the defense in general did not do a good job of controlling Dalvin Crook, allowing him to control the game with over 100 rushing yards and not setting the edge at the LOS, allowing him to get outside. Lots of missed tackles and bad angles as well. I think the struggles of the offense again have taken their toll physically and mentally – DE Jordan Sherit left with a season-ending knee injury, backup S Jaewon Taylor incurred a shoulder injury that took him out of the game, and others like CBs Duke Dawson and Quincey Wilson started to cramp up and were noticeably limping in the second half. It’s amazing that this unit held together this long, especially losing the heart of the defense in Jarad Davis, Alex Anzalone, and Marcus Maye to injury the past month. But……again……they did crack, and it’s déjà vu all over again, with flashbacks to the horrid end of the 2015 season.

The Gator special teams did what they could by blocking a FG at the end of the first half, controlling the F$U return game, and scoring a TD in the 4th quarter on a fumble recovery. Johnny Townsend and Eddy Pineiro have been outstanding this season, and did their part. The only glaring mistakes were 2 shanked kickoffs by Pineiro that allowed F$U to start form their 35-yard line, but neither of those possessions wound up in points.

That makes 6 out of 7 losses to F$U, and another hit to recruiting. Zero offensive TDs in the last 2 games against your in-state rival – unacceptable. Some very basic changes are necessary, and hopefully Coach Mac is strong enough to do what is necessary – now.

Florida now moves on to a return trip to Atlanta for the SEC Championship Game. This is a rematch of the 2015 game against Alabama, and once again Florida is a huge underdog, and deservedly so. Bama has top talent and depth throughout it’s roster, and has had little trouble imposing it’s will on opponents all season. Despite good production on offense led by true freshman QB Jalen Hurts, the Crimson Tide defense again is the backbone of the team. The front seven is heavy with future NFL players led by DTs Jonathan Allen and Da’Shawn Hand. Their D-Line is stout against the run, but also consistently gets pressure with pass rush specialist Tim Williams. The Bama LB corps is led by Rueben Foster and Ryan Anderson, 2 more all-SEC caliber players that are smart and physical. Florida’s depleted O-Line will have trouble moving the ball with any regularity – it’s up to Coach Mac and Coach Nuss to realize this, try and spread the field with quick throws in space, and accept the fact that it will take success with low-percentage deep pass plays to make this a game. While CB Minkah Fitzpatrick is a playmaker and ball hawk, the loss of Eddie Jackson needs to be exploited, as the Tide secondary can be beaten occasionally. There really is nothing to lose, and there is no proof that the Gators can sustain a running game against this level of competition. Yes, the run game was effective in the second half at LSU, but this Bama front seven is better.

Florida’s defense is depleted further this week with more key injuries. DE Jordan Sherit is done with a knee injury, S Jaewon Taylor is out with a bad shoulder, and the key pair of LB Alex Anzalone and S Marcus Maye remain out. It does look like LB Jarrad Davis will give it a go after missing the past 3 games with ankle injuries – his leadership could prove valuable. There is still enough talent and depth along the D-Line led by Caleb Brantley, Joey Ivie, and Taven Bryan to get a stalemate at the LOS, but will these guys (again) become worn down by another putrid performance by the Gator offense? The Bama running game is still strong led by a veteran O-Line and RBs Damien Harris and Bo Scarbrough, but a few guys have been dinged up recently and they haven’t been gashing teams as often the past month. Hurts is threat to run as well as pass, but if the front seven can keep containment and force him to throw, he has shown he will turn the ball over. Calvin Ridley is an excellent WR and ArDarius Srewart is a deep threat, but the narrative is essentially the same as the previous 2 weeks – try to hold things in check up front, and lean on Tabor and Wilson to control the intermediate and deep passing game. Hopefully, TE OJ Howard will continue to be underutilized, as he is a tough matchup for slower LBs and smaller DBs – he could be a real threat in this game. Ultimately, the defense can’t afford to allow any easy scores, and must make Hurts prove he can move the Tide offense through the air.

Special Teams have to be just that this week – they somehow have to lead directly to a score or provide short fields for the offense at least twice. Townsend and Pineiro have answered the bell all season for the most part, and have to once again. It’s incumbent on the return game to find a way and break Callaway loose.

As much as I had hoped the end to 2016 would be different, it’s starting to feel like 2015 again. A bad loss to F$U, a difficult matchup with a strong Alabama team, and recruiting momentum stopped. I’m not sure how this game ultimately plays out, but unless Appleby is allowed to run occasionally and to take more deep shots, and the offense finds a way to give the defense a fighting chance, this will be another blow to Florida on the national stage and could cripple the 2017 recruiting class. Coach Mac is starting to hear the questions and feel the pressure that comes with being the head coach at Florida. He will need to make some difficult but necessary decisions as soon as this game is over in regards to his current staff and also hold together what was until last week a good recruiting lass. A solid showing against Alabama is the first, difficult step……he has a lot of things working against him right now.

Prediction: Alabama 37 Florida 13

LSU Review / Florida $t. Preview

Finally, some good fortune for the Gators! Despite tough odds playing with 8 missing starters and having to play a second straight year on the road at Baton Rouge, Florida gutted out a memorable 16-10 win that books a trip back to Atlanta as SEC East champions. That was a remarkable effort from the entire team and coaching staff. It wasn’t pretty at times, but timely playmaking and strong red-zone defense were enough to earn a much-deserved victory and shut up all of those corn dog fans and assclown AD Joe Alleva.

On a day defined by big plays such as the 98-yard TD pass from Austin Appleby to Tyrie Cleveland and great individual efforts such as Jordan Scarlett’s 102 yards rushing, everyone will remember the goal-line stand by the defense. That group forced 2 turnovers and allowed only 10 points on 5 trips by LSU into the red zone. The young LBs led by David Reese played very well, and the D-Line made enough individual big plays led by Caleb Brantley to turn back a physical Tiger rushing offense. How poetic that Derrius Guice, who ran his mouth all week about how Florida was scared to play LSU, fumbled in the first half at the Gator 2-yard line and was stuffed on the last play of the game. Watching the replay showed that every defender did a great job of holding their ground and not allowing any room to run. While the Gators were hurt by throws to the TEs, they weren’t going to have a repeat of 2015, when they allowed 2 long pass TDs to the WRs by simply failing to locate the ball on what should have been easy breakups or interceptions. Jalen Tabor and Quincy Wilson were in man coverage almost all afternoon, and held up well. Tabor also made a game-saving tackle on the last LSU drive by tackling D.J. Chark after Wilson had fallen down in coverage. LSU did move the ball well between the 20s, but the defense rose up when it counted most to save the day.

The Florida O-Line found it’s rhythm in the second half, churning out 2 long, time consuming drives by running right at LSU’s front seven and dominating the LOS. T.J. McCoy did a great job at center in his first-ever start, getting the line calls made and holding the point of attack. The guards were able to get to the second level and break Scarlett free for some big runs, but he also earned a lot of yards with very tough running and second effort. The passing game was not going to be relied upon unless absolutely necessary, and the defense made sure that Appleby didn’t have to win the game by throwing every down. The WRs did a great job of blocking for the running game and not getting down about the limited pass plays. Appleby was overly cautious at times when he had open field to run, but perhaps the staff had told him to protect himself at (almost) any cost. He was able to make critical completions in the second half to extend drives and the big TD to Cleveland (the second-longest pass TD in Gator football history) that completely changed the momentum of the game.

There was so much going against Florida coming in to this game, and it was gratifying to see them team respond with such a great performance. The entire LSU athletic dept. and team disrespected the Gators……and now get no respect after losing and being ridiculed across the country for their behavior. I hope they are looking forward to 2 straight trips to the Swamp!

There’s no time to rest on it’s laurels, as Florida now travels to Taliban City to face the Criminoles. The Gators certainly should come into this game with a lot of confidence from winning at LSU, and are trying to end a 3-game losing streak in the series.

This will be the 4th straight year that Florida comes into this game with a backup QB. At least Applebly has made some big plays at both Tennessee and LSU, and won’t be fazed by the night-game atmosphere. The game plan for the offense may look similar to LSU – try and win time of possession with the running game, and occasionally go for the big play with the pass. Given all of the recent turnover on the O-Line, pass protection is usually the hardest thing to solidify. I expect McCoy to start again at center, but David Sharpe has been a turnstile at LT in pass protection. Unfortuntely, Martez Ivey has an undisclosed leg injury and may not start. Kevaris Harkless may have to start at his 4th OL position this week. F$U’s strength on defense is it’s pass rush led by DeMarcus Walker, and that’s not a good matchup for Florida. If Appleby does get time to throw, the Criminole secondary has been vulnerable all season. It’s imperative to get the ball to Callaway and Cleveland in space for the opportunity of a big play. I look for a little better mix of passes on early downs, but still a heavy dose of Scarlett and Lemical Perine to try and keep the offense on schedule. I know the staff would like to let Appleby run more often on zone reads or scramble plays, but with zero experience backing him up those plays will have to come judiciously.

The Gator defense will be tested, as F$U mixes the run and pass well. They are led on offense by RB Dalvin Crook, and must make it a priority to slow him down first to force freshman QB Deondre Francois into passing downs. The Criminole O-Line has been a sieve in pass protection – Francois has taken a beating all season and can’t be anywhere near 100% health. He has played well given his inexperience and can be an elusive runner. However, he is susceptible to turnovers and his passing accuracy is only average. If the Gator D-Line can apply pressure and get hits on him, there will be opportunities for takeaways. They should be able to physically overmatch the F$U O-Line occasionally, but have to remain disciplined in their gaps because of Crook’s cutback ability and quickness. Once again Tabor and Wilson will be relied on heavily in man coverage against Travis Rudolph and the Criminole WRs. I expect F$U to be able to move the ball well at times – the Gator defense will need to limit explosive plays and stiffen in the red zone. Dumbo Fisher will try to expose the young LBs in pass coverage with screens and swing passes to the RBs, and that could be a real problem for the defense.

Florida’s special teams were certainly that against LSU, and have to repeat that performance. Johnny Townsend needs to continue his excellent punting, including pinning the opponent inside the 20. Eddy Pineiro has been a real weapon on kickoffs by not allowing many returns, and has found a groove on FGs that hopefully continues – he will be relied on this Saturday. The coverage teams will face some good return men and need to break down and contain. Callaway can hopefully break loose on a punt return, while Tabor has stepped in to help Chris Thompson on kickoff returns. Anything that can help flip field position will be welcomed.

As always, a lot rides on this game for Florida. Can the Gators finally put 2 quality efforts together? Of course it would be great to end the losing streak, but also to continue to gain momentum on the recruiting trail as there are several big-time targets both schools are fighting for. A lot of recruits are paying close attention to how Florida ends this season and whether they look consistently competitive against the best teams. The coaching staff has done an excellent job in keeping the team together despite so many injuries and off-the-field noise. Once again the Gators have to close ranks, find the right available personnel to match up with a talented opponent, and find a way to rise up emotionally to the challenge. I’m not sure if so many younger players are ready to perform again at a high level after so much effort went into the victory at LSU. At full strength, Florida has a good chance to win. With so many starters out……not so much

Prediction: Florida $t. 27 Florida 16

S. Carolina Review / LSU Preview

So much for the doomsayers and sky-is-falling crowd. South Carolina was no match for Florida in the Swamp, in a game where the score didn’t reflect the Gators’ domination. Florida should have been up at least 30 in the 3rd quarter if not for 2 terrible fumbles in the red zone. Not surprisingly, the Gator defense completely shut down the Lamecock offense and their supposed freshman sensation QB, only allowing a garbage time TD and some late yards with the backups playing. The D-Line controlled the LOS all afternoon, while David Reese, Kylan Johnson, and Vosean Joseph played well at LB despite their inexperience. Austin Appleby played to his strengths, and made enough plays with his arm and legs to spark the offense and provide some hope. Jordan Scarlett rumbled to over 100 yards, and Ahmad Fulwood (!) came straight off the missing person’s sticker on the milk carton to make some big catches and score a TD. It was good to see Coach Nuss force the ball to Antonio Callaway and let him make plays in space. Even though Appleby can’t read defense at LDR’s level, he can make athletic plays and make the long throw.

It was a solid showing overall, and always good to see Won’t Misschump get sent packing with another loss. Its just a shame the Gators didn’t roll up a bigger score to embarrass that clown. They did put on a good show for what was a huge recruiting weekend, with an excellent list of recruits in attendance. Coach Mac and the staff have to lock some of these kids down to restock the roster for 2017 while injecting some more juice into the offense.

The dark cloud that is injuries is getting bigger. Tyler Jordan left after the first play after getting rolled up by a teammate, David Sharpe had the same thing happen to him later in the 1st quarter, and Marcus Maye, the only real leader left on the defense, was injured in the 3rd quarter and had to be carted off with a broken arm. Talk about gutted like a fish – that’s 3 starting OL from a unit that was only average at best, and the strength of the defense up the middle in Jarrad Davis, Alex Anzalone, and Marcus Maye (Anzalone and Maye are out for the season – Davis is likely out for this week). Maybe some day good luck will return to this program, because it’s been in short supply for 7 years running.

It’s do-or-die time for Florida this week, having to travel to LSU to play the Tigers after Hurricane Matthew screwed up the scheduling. LSU AD Joe Alleva became a whiny bitch and got his way (for this season), making the Gators play in Baton Rouge for a second straight year. Win, and the Gators are SEC East champions and book a trip back to Atlanta. Lose, and it’s depend on the unlikely scenario that Tennessee loses at home to Missouri or at Vanderbilt, in which the Vols will have more fans at that game than the Commodores – pathetic.

For Florida to win on the road, it’s going to take big plays from all 3 phases. The defense will have to at least slow the rugged Tiger rushing game led by Leonard Fournette and Darius Guice, while generating a score of their own. The offense will play the fastest and toughest defense it will see in the regular season, and have to put a least 10 points together. And special teams will need to break Callaway loose on a punt return to either score or set up a short field for the offense. The O-Line is a M*A*S*H unit at this point, but perhaps for 1 game they can rise to the occasion. Martez Ivey looked good at his natural LT spot, while TJ McCoy filled in adequately at center. Jordan should be back this week, which helps the interior. Appleby’s mobility will be critical in this game, as the LSU D-Line will be after him all afternoon. Coach Nuss will have to continue to design rollouts for him, and also allow him to keep the ball on the read option – that worked very well against Carolina and can at least slow the pursuit of LSU’s front seven.

LSU’s offense is all predicated on establishing it’s power run game, as QB Danny Etling is nothing special as a passer, despite having quality weapons at WR in Travin Dural, Malachi Dupre, and D.J. Chark. The secondary will be on it’s own in man coverage all day, as the front seven will have it’s hands full with LSU’s running game. It all starts with RBs Fournette and Guice, possibly the best 1-2 punch in the country. They will pound the rock all afternoon, and the Gators front seven will have to play it’s best game of the season to just slow them down – I don’t see them being able to completely stop the Tiger running game. It’s imperative that the Florida DL play sound football, holding their gaps and not allowing cutback lanes. The LBs will have to play the game of their young lives – they need to tackle well and not overpursue. The Tiger defense is led by LB Kendall Beckwith, CB Tre’Davious White, and safety Jamal Adams. All are all-SEC caliber players. Florida will have to find a way to get some modicum of a running game going with Scarlett and Lemical Perine, and those 2 will also need to help in pass blocking and in the passing game to take pressure off of Appleby and sustain some drives. If the offense can’t give the defense some rest, there’s no way they will hold up with all of the critical losses they have suffered. Hopefully CeCe Jefferson can play some this week at DE, and I think Davis will give it a go at LB. His presence would be a huge boost to the entire team, even in limited action.

I hope the Gator coaching staff throw everything they can at LSU and can keep them off-balance enough to keep the game close into the 4th quarter. If the offense sputters again, it will another bad loss on the road, and likely a bitter end to the SEC season with no trip to Atlanta. As much as is riding on the outcome, the Gators can’t get too jacked up and make early mistakes – just do your job, and play hard and physical. Florida has a lot of pride to play for after embarrassing themselves on the road this season, and this would be a monumental win. Unfortunately, I don’t see Appleby and the offense making enough happen on their own, and the defense cracking due to the inexperience it brings in at LB and getting worn down as the game progresses.

Prediction: LSU 30 Florida 13